Video game sound can often be perceived as a car-crash of sound effects, wall to wall music, and out of context or hard-to-understand dialogue. However, there are some well established artistic techniques within similar media, such as TV and Film sound, that can help allow for moments of relative calm which serve to intensify moments of subsequent chaos, without needing to turn everything up to 11 all the time.
This feature examines common examples of dynamics from horror cinema and how those rules can be adapted to game design and game audio in any genre through graphic visualisation and planning techniques.
'Design' is one of the most important areas of sound design, in that the sound designer needs to sit down, over the course of many planning meetings, with game designers and plot out and map the intended experience from start to finish.
This is done via each and every mission and cinematic and decide where the game needs to deliver the biggest impact, both from a macro-cosmic level for the entire game, and potentially a microcosmic level for each mission stage. This is, in effect, designing the dynamic range of the game experience and mapping where audio will follow that curve or any areas where audio needs to play against that curve.
Audio clearly needs to be involved in this planning process as music, sound and dialogue are some of the more potent tools for delivering subtlety and intensity in a game. This process is one of the many aspects of sound design that doesn't involve sitting in a studio designing sound effects and tuning game audio, it is potentially the most important to the integrity of the whole soundtrack, as it will dictate where music, fx and dialogue all need to work together with the game flow.
A wide dynamic range is often talked about in audio terms as very desirable, meaning amount of difference between the quietest and the loudest sounds. Something with no dynamic range cannot be experienced for very long before the viewer, or listener, becomes fatigued and reaches for the off-switch.
A game without a range of varied game-play moments and experiences for the player will more often than not result in a game soundtrack that has little or no dynamic range. Batman: Arkham Asylum and Dead Space are wonderful examples of games that have been carefully designed to have specific moments of calm, moments of silence, a mixture of stealth and combat as well as moments of intense action and resulting high volume sound, music and dialogue.
These games are wonderful examples of structured experience, and dynamics in both game-play and audio grow from structure and from the ability to control the intensity of the moment prior to an intense moment.
The dynamics of any game-play narrative can be easily plotted on a linear graph that only needs vague intensity measurements or gestures (fig 1). Each game-play element, mission or level can be plotted showing how the intended narrative intensity of that mission or event should feel over time. A curve can be applied to the map the intensity of each mission, each level and eventually the game structure as a whole.
Once a 'game intensity' curve has been drawn out, the separate audio elements, music, sound effects and dialogue can either play with the game intensity curve or play against it. This map can even be used to set up expectations in the matching of audio action to game-play action, and then break those rules as the narrative progresses to provide even further excitement and immersion in game-play.